Colombo, Constitutional Reform, Human Rights, Politics and Governance

EU withdrawal of GSP+ to enforce Human Rights

Economic sanctions have been used for foreign policy objectives since the time of Ancient Greece.

The idea that economic sanctions might be an alternative to the use of force received attention after the First World War, largely owing to President Woodrow Wilson’s advocacy. Since World War II, Economic sanctions have been employed to promote democracy and human rights, to end civil war, to stop drug trafficking, to fight terrorism, to combat weapons proliferation, and to promote nuclear disarmament. Since the creation of the United Nations in 1945, the Security Council has imposed sanctions in fifteen cases: Southern Rhodesia (1966), South Africa (1977), Iraq (1990), former Yugoslavia (1991), Liberia (1992), Libya (1992), Somalia (1992), Angola (1993), Haiti (1993), Rwanda (1994), Sudan (1996), Sierra Leone (1997), Federal Republic of Yugoslavia/Kosovo (1998), Afghanistan (1999), and Ethiopia and Eritrea (2000). The UN charter explicitly allows for the imposition of sanctions.

We are now faced with the possible withdrawal of GSP+, a trade preference allowed to us by the European Union which has contributed largely to our garment exports to the EU. Its withdrawal we are told will lead to the shutdown of several garment factories and loss of employment for about 100,000 women workers whose livelihood depends on it. Ranil has offered to support the Government in its efforts to prevent it.

Is it ethical to deprive the livelihood of so many workers? The EU will say the remedy lies with the Government of Sri Lanka. The present regime has a pretty atrocious human rights record. Whether the Armed Forces and the Police are directly involved or not, it is the duty of the government to see that such violations of human rights like abductions, disappearances and extra-judicial killings are properly investigated and the culprits brought to book. We cannot forget Father Jim Brown. Whenever some incident of abduction, a disappearance or killing is reported in the media the government promises to investigate and bring the culprits to book. But there are no results to show for any such investigations. Some people think the Government merely repeats the promise of investigation as a mantra until the people and the media forget the incident. Hardly anyone has been caught and punished. Even the Presidential Commission of Inquiry has come in for criticism. The International Observers- the IIEGP under Justice Bhagwati has left expressing their disappointment at the lack of political will to enforce justice.

Is it ethical to withdraw trade preferences to punish a state for failure to comply with human rights? Can we blame the EU? We are reminded of the saying of Our Lord “Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God”. God wants freedom for the individual and he instituted the rulers to ensure that they enforce justice fairly between citizens. So there is a moral obligation on the government to see that it protects the freedom of the individual and that he is not made subject to arbitrary punishment by other citizens. He must be dealt with according the law and the Rule of Law must be upheld. The present government cannot claim to be doing so at least in respect of the Tamil population. Our government is rightly criticized as a violator of human rights. It is a pity that the vulnerable population of women workers should suffer for the sins of their political masters. It would be more just if coercive pressures could be more selectively targeted against decision-making elites, rather than vulnerable populations. But then as long as the culprits are protected by the regime there is no way to do so.

“Vigorous economic development leads to independent thinking. People hope to be able to fully satisfy their free will and see their rights fully protected” said — Lee Teng-hui, Taiwan President.

Although the general rule for governments should be non-interference with free trade, governments often cite several cases to justify economic sanctions.

(1) Sanctions would be legitimate in preventing trade that would directly enhance an enemy’s military capability.

(2) Sanctions would be legitimate in preventing a country from profiting from the use of slave labor. Because individuals have property in their lives and labor, selling goods made by slave labor is akin to selling stolen property.

(3) Sanctions would be legitimate in preventing the exporting and importing of goods produced by political prisoners who have not violated anyone’s rights to life, liberty, or property. (4) Sanctions would be legitimate in protecting the rights of minors. (5) Sanctions would be legitimate in safeguarding intellectual property rights. In the case of the EU it insists also on protecting trade union rights and enforcement of fair labor standards.

Depriving the country of GSP+ is also a way for the EU to dissociate itself from the present regime and this fact should also be borne in mind by the Government. We are living in a globalized world where every nation is dependent on others not only for trade but for many other matters. Remember how the EU came to the support of the country after the recent tsunami. The EU has given us over $ 1 billion since the tsunami in humanitarian assistance and concessionary loans for development. Fighting the terrorist war can and must be done without violating the human rights of the people. If a government were also to resort to the same terror tactics as the terrorists what then is the difference between them? Won’t we get bracketed with regimes like North Korea or Iran? The USA may get away with violations of human rights in its war on terror but can we? The EU is our friends and the Government  should bear that in mind. They mean well and it is up to the Government to make some positive gestures in the matter of human rights enforcement and the Rule of Law.

We call upon the Government to set right its record on the enforcement of human rights and the rule of law. The first step to show its bona fides is by setting up the Constitutional Council and allowing it to provide protection to Heads of Departments like the Police to discharge their duties according to the law. The independence of the Judiciary must also be protected and the Attorney General and the IGP should be called upon to charge all those politicians who have violated the criminal law or resorted to corruption as reported in the COPE Report.